How the Diversity Argument in the Nerd Community Chases Its Own Tail

I don’t usually, and don’t plan to be the guy that writes reactions to other columns. It’s kind of circular and masturbatory and rarely does the work of informing an audience, as opposed to finger pointing across the table at someone else doing the same thing you do. The issue of the diversity in comics seems to be taking on a larger life beyond simple media commentary, however. And we are always 72 hours away from the next event that brings this conversation into focus. For days (and continuing now) it was the topic of what Marvel and Sony should do with their respective versions of Spider-Man. Debates involving Peter Parker’s race, the likability of Miles Morales (or some saying he’s a C-level character) and just how white the MCU films still are currently, have hit the internet at breakneck speed. I contributed to that malaise as well. The latest such “where we are in 2015 with race and pop culture” test came with the Michelle Rodriguez story over the weekend. Responding to TMZ about the rumors of her being cast for Green Lantern, she responded with the now infamous “stop stealing white people’s superheroes.” Well, as you can imagine, that led to someone Michelle Rodriguez pays, probably telling her how her message was going viral in the way you don’t want things to go viral, which led to her issuing an apology via her Facebook page. It was your garden variety “I’m sorry you’re offended, not sorry for saying something offensive” type of apology that gets passed out in Hollywood as frequently as gift bags at award shows.

[quote_right]If Michelle and her legion of White fanboys think that “creating your own mythology” is the silver bullet, then they should be let in on a little secret: creators come up with new characters that are POC all the time.[/quote_right] This could be a column beating up on Michelle Rodriguez because she gives so much material to do so. She says, she stuck her foot in her mouth again, but then says she was taken out of context (she wasn’t). She then waxes poetically on “creating our own mythologies” which is ironic considering she was asked about Green Lantern which has plenty of women and POC (AND ALIENS FOR CRYING OUT LOUD) in its history that she could have played without fear of upsetting the white balance of things. To quote Sterling Archer and Lana Kane, that last part, my friends, is sarcasm. Beyond Rodriguez or the dozens of celebrities that have come before her with insensitive, internalized bias against diversity and then followed those comments up with unintelligible justifications, I was struck by something else: that video on her Facebook page was met with a ton of absolving of her comments or, just as common, validation of her original comments (which for the record weren’t THAT different from her sorta-apology version). Now, that’s her Facebook fan page, OF COURSE the support would be fast and … (I’m not gonna do it) there. But enter a column written recently by Comic Book Resources about the situation and the questions that Rodriguez raises concerning characters of color new and old, and the fervent support of Rodriquez’s comments are still there. Now, it’s 90% white guys, but let’s not allow a lack of diversity in the commentary color what the group is consistently saying about diversity itself. Never that.

Still, the column itself takes an angle on the fan outrage towards Rodriguez (obviously not including the site’s readership referring to the comments on it) and asks what the fan culpability is when it comes to diversity. I don’t care to snipe at columns I don’t agree with or do power points on my dissent to their thesis, but this has been pretty common of late. Maybe it’s the act of not wanting to write the popular narrative or just the practice of writing the “you think you know this thing, but you don’t know this thing, and I’m the one to tell you why you don’t” article. I don’t know the motivations of these various columns but frankly it matters in a small portion of the overall conversation. Surveying this dialogue and its many, many iterations leaves me with two questions that are truly important when we talk about diversity in comics (and then their manifestations) and how we as public body view and criticize them.

“Creating your own Mythology”

This method of thinking burns me up. No one is going to say that the creation of new POC characters is bad. That’s like being a politician and saying you fight for a social safety net because you WANT people to be become impoverished and on food stamps. But like those that think all people below the poverty level are just leaching off the government because they like it, simply waving a wand at comic book creators and saying, “create new characters” as a fix for diversity is short sided and completely naïve. If Michelle and her legion of White fanboys think that “creating your own mythology” is the silver bullet, then they should be let in on a little secret: creators come up with new characters that are POC all the time. Where are those characters MOST prevalent? Independent comics. Webseries. Smaller, unfunded, labor of love comic books with more diversity than you could imagine. So, what’s the problem? Take your indie comics and your Barack Obama and stop complaining about diversity, right? Well, we watch movies, too. We like the physical feel of a newly published, high production quality comic book in our hands while standing in line at the comic book store too, and heaven forbid THAT comic not look like it contains the demographic for South African apartheid. If you look at the major developers, the most prominent beacon has got to be Image Comics (and yes, they are major now). The creator-owned comics unsurprisingly offer a diverse look that is wholly different than almost anything in popular media. There’s no movie and cinema version of Image that exists as far as critical review, rate of distribution, and commitment to representation. Which finally leaves us to arrive at DC and Marvel, where, fair or foul, 80% of the “diversity in comic books” conversation is centered.

[quote_left]Nothing about Peter Parker, growing up in Queens as a high school student on a field trip, states that he must remain White.[/quote_left] Mostly because they have the most popular comic book characters and mostly because they are the ones making movies and TV show announcements every two days. You know why POC talk about seeing a Black Superman and Earth 2’s Black Superman doesn’t satisfy the appetite? Because it’s fucking Earth 2. Because it is, by design, the B squad as far as how it factors into the mythology (B is generous, I would argue that many more people are invested in the alternate reality of Injustice: Gods Among Us than they are in Earth 2). Maybe it’s because we can’t have a character be Black without him being The Black “_______.” Pop Quiz, when I speak to other people of color, you know how often we call Miles Morales, Black Spider-Man? Zero. You know when I hear that term? When people on the internet are talking about not wanting a Black Spider-Man in the movies. Speaking of Miles, he introduces another complication with the simple “create your own mythology” statement. If a writer creates a person of color for a major comic book publication, do they stay around? Kamala Kahn is the exception to the rule. Sorta, considering they thought she would be cancelled out of the gate. I would say Miles, but I was honestly, really surprised to hear how many people disliked Miles Morales. Folks didn’t like his supporting cast or the overall Ultimate Universe, and that’s fair. But people who actually don’t like the characterization of Miles himself — that did floor me.

Well… a certain demographic doesn’t like the characterization of Miles. Do with that what you will. But if Miles Morales, who is absolutely beloved to the same people that ask for diversity, isn’t universally liked by those who could care less about diversity, then what hope do new POC characters really have? That’s the real problem. New characters in general, POC characters specifically, don’t sell very well for Marvel or DC. And if they don’t sell very well, they don’t stick around very long. And if a character can’t keep a sustained run, the likeliness that you will be buying a ticket at your local box office is pretty slim. Even more than other types of media, people feel comfortable with the familiar. Even if Batman were garbage (which COULD NOT be further from the truth with Capullo and Snyder at the helm) it would still push units beyond any newly created character. Wonder Woman #38 just got a second printing, but the response to the Finch creative team has been universally panned thus far. Do the math on that (and then do the math on why She-Hulk got cancelled or why Storm is constantly being rumored to be on the chopping block).

[quote_right]I can still buy and invest in my favorite Marvel stories and criticize the fetishization of the new Silk comic book. Contrary to popular opinion, POC can walk and talk about comic books at the same time.[/quote_right] I can’t even spend an inordinate amount of time on people arguing that characters “should just be the way they’ve always been,” when they were created during a time when Black people couldn’t even sit where they wanted on a bus. Missed me with that shit. Or the argument that the characters must be White even while lacking any cultural significance to back that claim. Nothing about Peter Parker, growing up in Queens as a high school student on a field trip, states that he must remain White. Make your own gentrified-New York joke, here. Even more laughable is the counter that making Black Panther White is the equivalent to Michael B Jordan being cast as Johnny Storm. Like Black Panther as a King of an African nation who fights against European and American imperialism and colonization aren’t important factors to his race and ethnicity. If those fanboys want a bone thrown at them, I don’t think Steve Rogers should ever be Black because the idea of a Black soldier earning the respect of his still-racist 1940s soldiers as he leads them through World War II (super soldier serum or no) seems less than plausible to me. Hey, ask and you shall receive. But my favorite non-argument is from those saying they don’t want to see characters portrayed away from their White origins because it’s just some sort of White-washing and disrespectful to POC.

Michael B Jordan combusting under the pressure of fanboys mad about a Black Human Torch in Fantastic Four
Michael B Jordan combusting under the pressure of fanboys mad about a Black Human Torch in Fantastic Four

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First, many, many thanks for your concern for us, lol. Second, the White washing is in the hands of the creator, not the existence of the character. Storm is probably a perfect example of this, as even though she has been symbolic for WOC since her creation, she has gone through plenty of phases where she was a WOC in artistry more than in content. When that situation exists, it’s valid. But treating it like a default for whenever a POC takes up the title of a popular character that was previously White doesn’t equal pacification or a new coat of paint on the same house. Nobody that is reading it is saying that Thor is just like Odinson except with breasts. Nobody is saying Sam Wilson is just Steve Rogers in melanin. It belongs to the writer. And thanks, concerned comic book purists, but when you spent money on Exodus in the theater, you kind of removed the authenticity of your concern from the equation. And lastly, you think a new Falcon solo comic book would be nearly as popular as the All-New Captain America title, even though it would be the same exact character? Yeah, I got my doubts.

Why Hate the Consumer, Not the Publisher

The second question which I do carry more ambiguity on, is the responsibility of the comic book reader. I’ve seen a lot of chatter (before and after Rodriguez’s comments) that Hollywood or the comic book industry should be pushing more for diverse stories of new characters. Yeah, no shit. The problem is that it’s presented as an alternative to the changing of a character’s race now. As in, hands off of our characters, go get your own. As ridiculous as that sentiment is, nobody fighting on this side of the diversity war would turn down new SUCCESSFUL AND POPULAR character in favor of changing the race of an established one. But as I eluded to, they are out there, they just don’t exist in large numbers in the most visible stage of comic books. Unequivocal fact: if a comic book is selling like hotcakes, nobody is going to cancel it (provided some scandal doesn’t befall it). And while a mostly White and apathetic comic book audience may contribute to the lack of sales for POC protagonists from the largest publishers, there is some responsibility for POC buying comic books that represent them from other publishers. Some. I understand the frustration of a comic book creator making a comic book with diverse characters of a certain level of quality and having little support. If you are arguing for diversity in comic books, then you definitely should do some research on what the present state of diversity in comics is beyond how many black people are on the primary Justice League (one, by the way). That part of the culpability, that responsibility from POC that want more diversity in comic books, holds water to me.

Concrete Park from Tony Puryear and Erika Alexander

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But there is now this movement that people can’t complain about a lack of representation if they haven’t logged a 30 day hunger strike first. Having not penned a hand-written letter to some DC Comics executive about the erasure of Dwayne McDuffie’s characters in the New 52 Universe doesn’t disqualify me from expressing my displeasure over Michelle Rodriguez’s comments. I can still buy and invest in my favorite Marvel stories and criticize the fetishization of the new Silk comic book. Contrary to popular opinion, POC can walk and talk about comic books at the same time. It’s righteous and condescending and reeks of respectability politics. This generalization that if we object to something, then we must be in a perpetual state of protest to all things, lest we be called hypocrites is garbage (or landfill, as we say around the BNP office). It is the familiar principle that because there is a recognized wrong (like lack of diverse characters in mainstream comics) that it is solely the responsibility of the black consumer to fix it.

From David F Walker’s Shaft.
From David F. Walker’s Shaft.

That is exhausting, to be responsible for not only calling out the issue, but solely responsible for fixing it as well, especially when we are the ones actually paying for content. The ask is too large there for my tastes. Well, it is in 2015 when everyone wants to start their sentence with, “I don’t want to sound racist but…” or “I’m all for diversity, but…” The reality is, you do sound like that and you’re not for diversity. You’re on some separate-but-equal shit. And if you actually cared about those diverse characters being created instead of just playing gatekeeper to traditionally White comic book characters, you’d speak up more often than to defend how White Peter Parker should stay.

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  • William is the Editor-In-Chief, leader of the Black Knights and father of the Avatar. With Korra's attitude, not the other one.

  • Show Comments

  • J. Lamb (Snoopy Jenkins)

    Thanks for writing this column! You might like this new piece on All New Captain America #1; it deals with similar concerns.

  • Hepburn3

    Excellent article! Well argued and thanks for writing it!

  • Bryan

    Great stuff William. I really is a catch 22 if we don’t support POC in comics we won’t get any but if we don’t create no matter were they are coming from then we can’t support them. I am a huge Miles fan and I have been collecting the trades so my son (3 months) can go back and read them one day, but I am also making an effort to find POC creators and support like Watson and Holmes for example.

    I never thought about the Peter Parker thing that simply. I mean if you went up to anyone and said I have a story about a kid in high school that lives in Brooklyn with his Grandma I wonder what they would think that kid looked like.

  • black not poc

    I think the problem is feeling the need to justify keeping characters white in the first place. There’s no need to apologize for changing or keeping characters the same. The ‘create your own mythology’ argument stands. If you can’t keep it afloat thru quality stories that please crowds consistantly, then you have your answer right there

  • Osvaldo Oyola

    I didn’t see this until today when someone on my Twitter feed shared it, but it reminds me of my essay “I Know It When I See It”- Race, Relatability, and Reading Practice

  • Kimberly April-Medina Stelly

    Such a great article. Thank you.

  • Dusty Lenscap

    I was assigned this article for a class, just FYI. People are paying attention. This was a worthwhile read and I’ll be back. Thank you. Bookmarked and followed.

  • jammiehermans

    Being white, I’m ashamed to admit that this issue isn’t something that I’d ever considered until discussing POC in comics in a class that I’m taking. (I also don’t read many comics in general, which I’m also ashamed to admit.) The small bit of happy that I’ve gained from this experience is learning that my nine year old daughter’s favorite hero Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel. When I talked to her about why she was the best she said that she could relate to her because she doesn’t always fit in with everyone either. She didn’t look at is as relatable by race but feeling like an outsider.

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